THUNDER BAY - The second session of public consultations hosted by the expert panel to review policing in the city saw a much larger turnout than the first, with those in attendance sharing concerns ranging from systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service to what the panel will actually do with the feedback it is collecting.
More than 15 people attended the second public session with the expert panel Wednesday evening at the Oliver Road Community Centre, a stark contrast to the two people who participated in the first session at the West Arthur Community Centre on Tuesday.
“Your presence speaks volumes to what your community means to you,” said Keith Forde, former deputy chief of the Toronto Police Service and panel member. “We all know the solutions are going to come from the community.”
The expert panel consisting of nine members was appointed by the Thunder Bay Police Services Board earlier this year to address concerns about policing in the city. A majority of board members have since resigned and an administrator has been appointed to oversee the board by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.
Initially the format for the consultation would have seen participants break out into smaller groups to meet with panel members, but those in attendance felt all voices should be heard collectively and it continued with a town hall format.
Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King opened the discussion by recalling moving to Thunder Bay to pursue his education in 1975 and how he has witnessed a change in the city.
“Throughout the course of the years in Thunder Bay getting my education at Lakehead University, what I’ve noticed is yes, there is racism in this community,” he said, adding that there is not enough education relating to the historical impacts of colonialism and residential schools on Indigenous people.
“I think this is why we are dealing with a lot of the issues with policing,” he said. “I am a firm believer that we need police protection. I think what’s really important is there has to be an educational process dealing with the history of our country. First Nation lands were stolen lands. There has to be a process of reconciliation.”
Kerry McLaughlin, a member of the Metis Nation of Ontario echoed Chief King’s comments, adding that policing is a calling that can take a heavy toll on those who put on the uniform, but discussions about the profession need proper framing.
“Whoever does don the title of chief of police, it is a calling,” he said. “We as a community need to come back to our community sandboxes and work toward healing and reconciliation.”
Others in attendance raised questions about the role of the panel and what will result from the consultations it is hosting.
One participant asked why they panel was even holding the public sessions, saying the decision to appoint the panel was done by Police Services Board members who are no longer serving on the board.
“We are putting money in and we are going to throw it out and do it again,” the participant said, adding that this is a situation where the cart is being put before the horse.
“This panel is here and we are going to deal with it but it should not be. This should not be happening... It is the wrong time. This has to be done when the turmoil is over. Any decision by this board should be out the door. That is my opinion.”
Panel chair Alok Mukherjee said the participant raised an important question but the reality is the panel is in the city and it will do the best it can.
“One thing we don’t want to do is write another report that sits and gathers dust somewhere,” he said. “We want to put forward concrete ideas.”
Issues of systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service were also raised and that the possible reason for low turnouts during the public consultations is that people don’t feel comfortable speaking to the issues publicly.
One participant who said she has been a social worker in the city of Thunder Bay for the past 27 years said she hurts every time a youth is found deceased in a river, whether the person is Indigenous or not.
The woman went on to say that she often attempts to help people in distress, which is a result of many issues ongoing in the city that are not unique to Indigenous people.
But in her efforts, she has come into contact with members of the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“I have had the most horrible experience with the Thunder Bay Police and their interactions with First Nations people in distress,” she said. “It sickens me. Especially the younger the cop.”
“They are very aggressive in Thunder Bay,” she said of the police. “I know there are a lot of drug and alcohol problems, but people are people.”
Another participant emphasized to the panel that racism is very prevalent in the city and addressing the issues will require a solution that is unique to Thunder Bay.
“It’s very difficult for us to articulate how normal racism is here,” the participant said. “It’s really Important for the panel to understand how deep it is. It is not an undertow or undercurrent. It’s a tidal wave the community is dealing with.”
“I really think you need to not look at this place through the lens of your particular backgrounds. I don’t think you will find a solution that will work up here.”
Mukherjee agreed, saying the panel needs to listen, learn, and understand the experiences of the people living in Thunder Bay.
“Our job is to listen carefully so we can understand the root causes of those and provide some feedback,” he said.
“What has happened since those big reports by former senator Murray Sinclair and the OIPRD and Seven Youth inquests? What has happened since then that there is an expression of dissatisfaction? Why is there a call for more investigation? Why is the OCPC saying there is an emergency? We cannot find those answers in documents. The only way to get an answer is to listen to what the community is saying and what people within the organization are saying.”
The expert panel has been in the city since Monday and has held numerous private meetings with groups and individuals. It is expected to hold a wrap-up media conference Thursday morning.